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Why is Authenticity Important?

The hidden power of living authentically and being your genuine self.

Wooden tiles spelling out 'real is rare'

When you hear the word authentic, what does it mean to you? Authenticity often gets matched with words or phrases such as 'being real' or genuine. While there's nothing wrong with those comparisons, being authentic goes deeper than that. I would be willing to say that authenticity is one of the most crucial skills a person can learn during their lifetime.

But before we delve into why it's such a crucial skill, it's important to understand what living authentically looks like. I would encourage you to take some time to think about what your authentic self looks like, and write those thoughts down!

Living an authentic life

I lived in the Republic of the Congo for a year back in 2017. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, I was impressed by the hospitality of nearly every person I interacted with there. One of my favorite things about the Congolese is their brutal honesty. This honesty was never meant to be offensive; people simply said what they saw. You went into each conversation knowing full well that your weight, skin color, or even acne would be the first item of discussion with a complete stranger.

At first, it felt like all of my insecurities were constantly being magnified and thrown in my face. It was humiliating. However, over time I stopped noticing. When someone would yell, "Hey you with the weird hair" in French from across the street, I knew they were talking to me. By the end of my time in the Congo, it was the highlight of my day to pack 8 people into a tiny taxi and become fast friends with each of them by the time we reached our destination.

A young girl walking through an impov rished neighborhood

This culture of openness may come in part from the fact that everyone quite literally lives out in the open. Even if you wanted to hide, it just can't be done. The result though is that what you see is what you get. If a man cheats on his wife, all of his neighbors know, so why try to hide it? Surprisingly, situations like these were less tense and more comedic.

I view my Congolese friends as being some of the most authentic people I know. I could tell them anything about myself and it would never shock them or change their opinion of me. Better yet, they assume that I do the same for them. That mutual trust and respect is such a liberating feeling. It's a feeling that I've missed dearly since returning home to the United States.

How to be your authentic self

Think for a moment about the person with whom you feel most comfortable. Perhaps it is a parent or sibling. It could be a close friend. But think about how you feel when it's just you and that person. When life's challenges come up, even if they are embarrassing, do you feel comfortable going to this person, and being 100% open to them? I would hope that the answer is yes.

Sometimes, the person that we are when we are with this trusted individual is very different from the person we project in larger social settings. We often wear a metaphorical mask to cover what we perceive to be flaws. This could be in the form of lying about our real test scores to a study group or inflating our job descriptions at reunions. Let's not even mention how we talk about our weight or age!

Living authentically is embodied in that feeling of security we have when we are with a person we deeply trust and care for. If you do not have such a person in your life, consider it to be the version of yourself you project when thinking or singing in the shower!

A group of friends dancing on a mountain at sunset

The first step in being your authentic self is to understand your personal interests and flaws. Doing this doesn't need to be a complex thought exercise. It can be as simple as writing down things like:

  • You're favorite type of music/song

  • Food that's a guilty pleasure for you

  • That special someone you're too afraid to ask out

  • Board games or video games you like

  • Books you read

  • Your greatest fear(s)

  • Those embarrassing memories that keep you up at night as you replay them over and over

The list goes on! Identify the core parts of yourself that make you you. Once you have that list, consider your social circle.

The second step to being your authentic self is to compare your list of core identity traits to what your social circles' attributes may be. Now that's a mouthful! Breaking it into simpler terms, take your playlist for instance. Everybody has their actual playlist, and then the playlist that comes on when you and your friends are in a car together! Why is that? Do your favorite places to eat or movies to watch align with what your social circle prefers?

If your answer is no, that doesn't mean you need to find new friends. At least not yet! The question you must ask is whether or not your social groups know what your core identity traits are. If they don't share with them. I wouldn't consider myself a particularly gifted writer, so it's hard to explain in a way that is understandable in a general sense, but hopefully, some of my examples give you a good starting place.

If you are hooked on a certain Anime, are you ashamed of letting your friends know? Would your friends be upset if you broke the news that your Friday night burger joint isn't your favorite? As you share the core parts of yourself with the people you spend time with, if you find that they respond poorly, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for socialization. I don't think we realize how much of our mental energy is consumed trying to play our part in a friend group. Now this doesn't mean that dig your feet in and only do what you prefer, it's more of an exercise of letting your people know who you are more deeply and hoping that they do the same in return.

A neon sign that says 'you are what you listen to'

The final step is to introduce your authentic self by default to everyone you meet. Maybe that's a terrifying prospect, and we'll talk about that in a minute. But if you aren't in any social circles where you feel you can be your authentic self, building those deeper relationships you seek becomes much easier when people know who you really are at first glance.

Terrified vs. Reality

I get it, our world today is complicated. Being your authentic self can carry a lot of connotations. Maybe the real you is a version of yourself that you fear could be rejected by everyone you love. I don't mean to downplay to difficulty that some may have in really being authentic. But I will say that my experience among the Congolese people was one of the happiest most fulfilling times of my life. It wasn't because of adventure, or service, though that played some part. Deep down though, it was the rich emotional and social connections I made with those people.

What I found as I slowly let my guard down around the people I spoke with, was often the very things I felt embarrassed to share with them were the same things they felt embarrassed by in their own lives. Today's world of social media does a good job of making our lives appear perfect (as cliché as it sounds) and I fear that sometimes we forget that each of us is human. It has been my experience that my insecurities and struggles can be used to help my closest friends with their challenges, but I often had to be the first to establish that trust and comfort. While that may feel strange to us in the Western world, I assure you that the concept isn't foreign for many of our friends overseas.

A smiling boy

So many of today's conflicts seem to stem from a fear of being exposed. When everyone lives in that fear, it's like a powder keg just waiting for a spark. We may not be able to change the world by ourselves, but we can change our immediate circles, and as we do so, I know how relieving and liberating that is. Nothing feels better than accomplishing a hard task and being able to call a person we love to share the news with them, even if our great accomplishment is something small.

If that feeling of acceptance feels far off for you right now, do not lose hope that it exists! There are people out there who can relate to you in ways you can't even imagine. For me, it took about 8,000 across the ocean to discover. But I found it in the Congo, and I continue to find it now in the US. Understanding who you are, and how you think and work is not something that happens overnight. It is a process, and I don't think that process ever really ends. Focus Forge, in all of its cluttered content, is in essence my efforts to help people like me to find that thing that makes them tick and build their lives around it. I'm not there yet myself, but I'm working on it. And if you find yourself struggling with those questions, reach out! Stick with me as I figure out where I go alongside you.


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